Britain has rolled out a welcome fit for an old friend this week as Xi Jinping travels through London. The Chinese President, on the first state visit in a decade, sat beside the Queen to dine on roasted loin of Balmoral venison. The Duchess of Cambridge donned a diamond-encrusted tiara over a dress the colour of the Chinese flag, and the Countess of Wessex's String Orchestra played Xiao He Tang Shui, a folk tune about a lover missing her beloved.
A month ago, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne wrote that "we want to make the U.K. China's best partner in the West," and Britain has wasted no time making that happen. Meetings with the Dalai Lama have been relegated to the past, criticism of China's despotic political culture and flagrant human-rights abuses swallowed. Critics in the West have called it a British kowtow.
The rest of the world might call it the future, as China's influence grows strong enough to increasingly bring other nations into its orbit – and bend them to its will.
In China, the romance with the U.K. is being heralded as a new model for how Beijing and foreign capitals can find common ground, a model that Canada, under its incoming Liberal government, is being urged to emulate. It was Pierre Trudeau who opened Canadian ties with Communist China and sat down for tea with Mao Zedong. Now with his son the prime-minister-designate, "I really hope that Canada will follow in the U.K. footsteps," said Zhao Chen, a research fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's premier academic organization.
After all, he said, look at the benefits friendship can bring. Britain, which had already recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, was the first Western founding member of the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank this year, against the wishes of the United States. British ministers have fanned out across China on an array of missions to conjoin the U.K.'s future with that of China and its hinterlands.
Now, Mr. Xi has come to London to return the favour, bearing truckloads of trade and investment gifts potentially worth up to $60-billion.
It's a sizeable infusion of Chinese investment into a country that has shown a new willingness to build its next generation of high-speed trains and nuclear power plants with Chinese technology. And it underscores the bargain China offers to those willing to let it rule at home unmolested by outside censure.
Mr. Zhao puts it this way: "To embrace a panda with plenty of cash, will that not be good for the U.K.?"
As Mr. Osborne pursues a "golden decade" of Sino-British relations, Beijing has explicitly called on others to follow his lead.
"It should be diplomatic etiquette for foreign leaders not to confront China by raising the human-rights issue," the Communist-run Global Times newspaper argued in September. The British attitude is "quite realistic and not based on ideology," said Ding Chun, director of the Centre for European Studies at Fudan University. As a result, Sino-British relations stand to become a model of "partners in peace, partners in growth, partners in civilization," he said.
The new British approach does have its critics.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, questioned the "cost to the United Kingdom's reputation and integrity" from the country's "human-rights capitulations" in an essay for Foreign Policy this week. Her article is entitled, "Since When Does Xi Rule Britannica?"
Evan Medeiros, a former White House adviser on Asia and current Asia research head at consulting firm Eurasia Group, has accused Britain of a major strategic error. "If there is one truism in managing relations with a rising China, it is that if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure," he told the Financial Times.
Yet around the world, London's new friendliness toward Beijing is being viewed with understanding, if not admiration.
"The U.K. understands that ultimately if you want to have influence in the world, you have to have an economy," said John Gruetzner, a Beijing-based business consultant who offered advice to an international-affairs council struck by the Canadian Liberal Party to hammer out policy recommendations. It makes little sense "to deny yourself prosperity because of something you can't actually change."
Mr. Gruetzner believes the Justin Trudeau government will "go back to a more professional relationship with China."
Mr. Trudeau has himself said little about how he intends to work with China. But Liberals have traditionally been close with Beijing, from Pierre Trudeau – criticized as "the Communists' comrade" – to Jean Chrétien and his raucous Team Canada trips. And from the first days of the younger Trudeau's tenure, China will demand attention. It is critical to two imminent policy decisions, on participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the commitments Canada is willing to bring to the Paris climate talks.
Mr. Trudeau's party, meanwhile, has championed a renewed focus on cross-Pacific profit.
"A strong economic relationship with China and strong business-to-business relationships with China are absolutely essential," Chrystia Freeland, one of the Liberal MPs on the international-affairs council, said in an interview last year. "And because of how China operates, government has an essential role to play in facilitating those relationships."
She struck an admiring note about Asia's economic rise, which she called "a huge success story, a hugely positive transformation of the world from a humanitarian point of view." China is an "increasingly important player," she said. "We can't not be there and imagine that we will enjoy the kinds of prosperous middle-class life that I think we all expect."